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Chapter 9: Marriage, Sexual Acts, and Family Life


Every marriage is a permanent and exclusive union. Traditional theology treated marriage simply as an instrumental good, but recent Church teaching points beyond that view, to the view that marriage itself is a basic human good. While marital communion can exist without parenthood, having and raising children is nonetheless the specific, intrinsic perfection of marriage, which shapes it as an open-ended community formed by the self-giving of marital consent. The good of marriage itself implies that marriage is permanent and monogamous. The inadequate motives of some who enter into marriage do not affect its properties.

The Church’s practice (for example, in granting annulments and dissolving nonconsummated marriages) is consistent with this theology of marriage. Annulment is not a form of divorce but a judgment that a particular marriage never existed. When a couple have consented to marriage but not yet consummated it by conjugal intercourse, their relationship is not yet fully constituted as a marriage. At the same time, the Church rejects the view that adultery justifies divorce and holds that even nonsacramental marriage is indissoluble. Solving some apparent puzzles in this area requires recognition that there are such things as imperfect marriages—unions which both are and are not marriages.

Marriage is sacred in itself and also within the old covenant. But every marriage of a baptized couple also is an enduring sacrament, which confirms marriage’s unity and indissolubility while both preparing for and participating in heavenly communion. Christian couples should regard marriage as a vocation; and the family should function as a kind of domestic church.

Within the framework of the divine design for marriage, each couple should build a unique marital and family communion by satisfying various responsibilities. Papal teaching on the husband-wife relationship is consistent; John Paul II’s emphasis on the spouses’ mutual subjection does not contradict the tradition. The equality and differences of husband and wife can and should be harmonized. Both spouses should maintain and perfect their marital love, and should be companions in the whole of life. At the same time, being male and female differentiates spouses’ responsibilities, though excessive differentiation of roles should be avoided. The father-husband has a special role in decision making: ordinarily, as a service to the family, to make decisions in situations where one person must exercise authority for the family.

Married couples should engage in chaste sexual acts, in which sexual pleasure is subordinated to communion; they should abstain when there is a reason to abstain. Spouses should cooperate lovingly in marital intercourse, and marital sexual acts short of intercourse can be appropriate. But married persons should not engage in other sexual acts, nor should the unmarried engage in any sexual act. Although sexual arousal, and even satisfaction, can occur blamelessly without an intentional sexual act, nevertheless all intentional sexual acts violating the marital good are grave matter. With the help of grace it is possible for Christians to pursue chastity and attain it.

Spouses have responsibilities with regard to children. They should procreate responsibly, in light of their vocation to marriage, using only upright methods to carry out their conscientious judgments; in this connection, birth regulation by periodic abstinence is not contraception. Parents should raise their children to be good Christians. They should treat children fairly. They should exercise parental authority, while bearing in mind that it is limited by the true good of children. They should recognize and fulfill their responsibility in regard to religious formation, and indeed should bring Christian principles to bear on the whole upbringing of children: their use of media, schooling, education in sexuality, hobbies and friends, and so on.

For their part, children should honor, help, and obey their parents. The family should be a community of love and service, where, for example, crises like the death of a family member and pregnancy out of wedlock are dealt with in a responsible, Christian way.

If a marriage is troubled, some sin or sins usually underlie the situation, and this requires repentance and mutual forgiveness on the spouses’ part. They also should take the necessary steps to deal with nonmoral sources of trouble. Sometimes spouses may, or even should, initiate a marital separation, subject to the Church’s authority; but even separated persons still have many marital and familial responsibilities. Where troubles relate to a doubt about the validity of a marriage, the doubt can and should be overcome. So-called internal forum solutions to marriage cases solve nothing; Catholics in bad marriages should recognize the truth of their situation and act accordingly.

Couples preparing for marriage also have responsibilities. To begin with, a person should discern whether he or she has a vocation to marriage and, if so, should begin to respond by developing chaste friendships. Those with marriage more immediately in prospect should seek suitable partners; they should not carry on untimely romantic relationships, however, and they should consider as potential partners only those who are truly available and morally well qualified. An engagement should be the result of both romance and reflection—the romantic element should of course be chaste. Upon becoming engaged, the couple should begin immediate preparation for marriage by seeing a priest at once and jointly settling several important questions. Wedding arrangements should serve the relevant goods and not impose unreasonable burdens on anyone concerned. Far more important than planning the wedding’s details is preparation—not least, spiritual preparation—to fulfill the responsibilities of married life.